In the spring of 2020 a worldwide Coronavirus pandemic has effectively shut down most of the sporting calendar for the foreseeable future. With regard to one of the biggest horse races in the UK, an innovative approach has been adopted to temporarily fill in the void.
History Maker 1: On the morning of April 4th I was surprised to find that a Virtual Grand National TV event is to be shown, at the time when the real race would have been run. Using 21st century CGI technology, a computer program has number crunched data regarding the 40 horse field, to enable a hypothetical race to be run producing a set of alternate reality results? Bookmakers are taking bets and all profits made will be donated toward the NHS, which is a commendable gesture. The algorithms are only as good as the quality of the program design and the data fed into it, and I suspect those in the know will already be aware of a foregone conclusion. However, it will provide a much needed element of cheer for sports and non-sports fans alike. And the 2020 Virtual Grand National will almost certainly be considered a history maker by sports reporters in the future, when they reference 2020 as a NOT RUN year. But technology cannot replicate the drama that has undoubtedly influenced and shaped the results of this historic race.
History Maker 2: Another NOT RUN race year was 1993 when the original start was delayed due to animal rights protesters. Then two shambolic false starts followed, where riders and horses got tangled up in the starting tape. Despite the desperate attempt by a flagman to halt proceedings, seven mounts continued racing going into the second circuit. The outcome of this farcical set of events was that John White rode Esha Ness to a believed National victory, only to find the effort declared void and a re-run deemed not possible. At the time, and to this day, I’m disgusted with that decision, although I could understand the reasoning for it. But in my humble opinion, the second false start could be likened to a mass pile up at the first hurdle, with few horses remaining in contention and the final result standing. So Esha Ness competed against a vastly reduced field, but the effort was no less valiant.
History Maker 3: Foinavon ridden by John Buckingham won the 1967 race at 100-1! How did a rank outsider win such an illustrious race you may ask yourselves? Mainly by the horse and rider both keeping their heads and managing to avoid a massive pileup at the 23rd fence, wiping out a large proportion of the field. It just goes to show how the nature of the race shows no mercy to any horse or rider, no matter how favoured in the betting stakes.
History Maker 4: Devon Loch ridden by Dick Francis inexplicably faltered in the home run of the 1956 race. Literally with the winning post in sight, and any contender far behind, victory seemed assured, despite the long run in. Suddenly the horse appeared to spring forward as if to jump and landed on its belly with two legs forward two legs back. Although the horse got to its feet it had ground to a halt, and ESB with rider D.V. Dick rode past to win by ten lengths. With hindsight, I’ve seen some wonder if Devon Loch thought another jump was there, his breakdown apparently coming exactly opposite the water jump. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the horse suffered a sudden jolt of pain, from cramp or perhaps a small clot somewhere in the hind quarters that momentarily paralysed the animal. Undoubtedly after such a gruelling race, to suffer a debilitating affliction that snatches victory away yards from the finishing post makes Devon Loch the unluckiest loser in Grand National history. Personally speaking, I’m well aware of a sudden jolt of pain that literally stops me in my tracks after a busy day, and the jerk reaction I have to it, does remind me of the Devon Loch incident.
History Maker 5: A happy winning combination the victorious team of 1981 Aldaniti and Bob Champion. Both rider and horse had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to ride in the National together. Bob Champion had battled a terminal cancer diagnosis and Aldaniti had endured two bouts of tendon trouble and a fractured hock-bone. But a good horse and talented jockey in times of difficulty need an understanding trainer, and for this duo that man was Josh Gifford. He assured Champion his job was secure and overseen Aldaniti’s treatment and subsequent training.
History Maker 6: The 1997 National race was postponed on the Saturday after a bomb threat from the IRA. The Aintree race course was evacuated and the race re-scheduled for the following Monday, when Lord Gyllene ridden by Tony Dobbin won by a good distance at 14-1.
History Maker 7: Between 1973 and 1977 Red Rum won three Grand National races in 1973, 74 & 77 coming second in 1975 & 76. No other horse has achieved three wins of this illustrious race, although at the time of writing Tiger Roll had two successive wins in 2018 & 2019, and would have been a main contender for a third victory this year. But the history books will have to wait until 2021 to see if Red Rum’s success rate can be equalled.
However innovative the Virtual Grand National this year will be as a concept, the fact is the truth of this historic race will remain stranger than any fiction created by CGI.